From my Rangers season preview yesterday…
Will the musical chairs arrangement of Neftali Feliz to the rotation, Alexi Ogando to the bullpen, and Joe Nathan to the closer’s role end up working out better for the Rangers than if they had Ogando in the rotation and Feliz still closing?
Last season, after making 29 starts and a pair or relief appearances, Alexi Ogando had a 3.51 ERA in 169 innings, amassing 3.6 fWAR. In 64 relief appearances, Rangers closer Neftali Feliz had a 2.74 ERA in 62 1/3 innings, and was worth 1.0 fWAR. And finally, Joe Nathan had a 4.84 ERA in 44 2/3 innings with the Twins, and wasn’t worth any fWAR.
The Rangers are shaking up their pitching staff from last year’s alignment, by moving Ogando to the bullpen, Feliz to the rotation, and Nathan to the closer’s role. If you ignore the Nathan signing for a minute, the move is essentially replacing 100 innings of Ogando with 100 innings of Feilz. From a pure fWAR standpoint (looking at last season), the move is a bust for the Rangers. But you have to dig a little deeper than just that.
While Feliz had a fantastic rookie year (that saw him win the AL Rookie of the Year award), things took a massive step back last season. His strikeout rate fell by a batter and a half per nine innings, his walk rate rose by two batters per nine, and while his ERA remained roughly the same, his FIP rose by half a run as his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction. As a result, his fWAR went from 1.8 in 2010 to 1.0 in 2011. Although more importantly, Feliz’s velocity remained consistent at 96 miles per hour.
His last full season as a starter was 2008, when he threw 127 innings for the Rangers in A and AA ball. He struck out 153 and walked 51, so there’s clearly some history here. But then again, that was in 2008. In 2009, he started as a starter but was shifted to the bullpen in preparation for a late season callup to the majors. In 108 innings between AAA and the majors, Feliz struck out 114 and walked 38. He’s never thrown more innings than those 127 in a year, and after two straight seasons under 70 innings, it’s hard to believe that he’ll have the stamina to make 30 starts in 2012. There’s also no guarantee that he can keep that velocity when he’s throwing five or six innings per outing as opposed to one inning.
On the other hand, Ogando proved that he can keep his velocity strong as a starter. His fastball averaged 95 miles per hour last season after averaging 96 in relief during his 2010 rookie season. While he didn’t strike out as many hitters as Feliz (126 in 169 innings), he had much better control, only walking 43 last year.
I completely understand what the Rangers are trying to do here. They have an electric young arm in Feliz, and they confined him to the bullpen immediately upon calling him up, and they want to see if there’s anything more there. But shifting Ogando of all their starters out of the rotation doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Ogando has a much higher ceiling than someone like Colby Lewis, who had a 4.40 ERA and 4.54 FIP last year with a homer rate nearly double that of Ogando. Lewis is also three years older than Ogando, and never had any success in baseball prior to his last two years with the Rangers, which were predicated by his ability to throw 200 innings in a year.
I think the Rangers are undervaluing an asset in Ogando right now, by shifting a three and a half win pitcher in his first year as a starter to the bullpen. It just doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. They had to pull the trigger on Feliz sooner rather than later, but jumping ship on Ogando after his first year in the rotation (which was a success) seems quite odd.